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Criticism

Post #1336 • April 24, 2009, 2:53 PM • 24 Comments

Criticism has two fundamental problems working against it.

The first is that criticism has a longstanding intellectual link to academia and a professional link to journalism, neither of which fully suits the practice of criticism itself. The grandiose pursuit of piddling knowledge has been a hallmark of humanities studies for a hundred years—Frank Jewett Mather wrote about it—but when deconstructionist authors became popular in the late Eighties and early Nineties, academia really went off the deep end, and art criticism has only begun to recover. And while criticism borrowed its form from journalism, they're completely different activities, albeit excercised alongside one another out of necessity. Now that the economics of journalism are heaving, critics are paying the price for that linkage, as they get dumped from the papers like ballast from a crashing balloon.

The second problem is that the success of art criticism is locked to the success of the art of its time, and the last movement in art to catch on in a big way was Pop. Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol are household names. Beuys and Judd are not. Their antecedents are known primarily to specialists. Given the track record of the last forty years, it's not impossible to imagine that art will never significantly influence the culture at large again. The primary driver of visual culture (not just art, but design, illustration, and any man-made thing with a visual element) right now isn't a style, it's a tool—the computer. Computers are fascinating, but not for reasons that would be useful to an art critic. Art criticism is an ancillary activity of art making, and the fleas aren't going to go anywhere that the dog doesn't take them.

The first problem will sort itself out as self-publishing becomes increasingly common and remunerative. The second problem could end up gutting the genre.

Comment

1.

Hans

April 24, 2009, 5:43 PM

Exactly Franklin, something I feel for a while now (the second part of your smart short post) I guess just the screen is our canvas now and micro-critic can be exchanged here: http://twitter.com/artclubcaucasus

Lets face the new world and restart art again !

2.

Tim

April 24, 2009, 6:38 PM

Franklin, for me, the role of a critic is to commence or further the conversation.

Has the computer found its place yet? Fascination with it is perceeding substantive use of it, it seems. Obviously the computer is revolutionary, and thus disruptive. Anyway, the constituent parts flung by the Techonolical Explosion are still ascending. I'm expecting critics/observers to note the cascading and landing of those parts. Then criticism, a fundamental part of the Deal, will find its place in the new arrangement. Journalism in general is in the the 'chaos' phase of a revolutionary cycle.

3.

John

April 24, 2009, 9:12 PM

...the fleas aren't going to go anywhere that the dog doesn't take them.

Franklin: your second point is so true and utterly crushing for any would be critic. There may be something of a circle that caused it, that the critics of our time focused on art that is not worth remembering, the wrong art, the critics that got published, that is.

Print publication is a necessary but not sufficient condition for conveying muscle and authority to what is written, if indeed what is written possesses those attributes. Electronic media, so far, has failed to furnish the tight focus that brings a large audience around to recognizing superior writing about superior art.

Now that "the economics of journalism are heaving" and those who have dominated print publications are being shown the door there is a (very) slight chance for someone with real muscle to gain access to the decimated print media that will follow.

There is a breech in a status quo that has gone nowhere for 40 years. We have better dogs that the new fleas could ride. It could work out. I guess that makes me an optimist.

4.

eageageag

April 25, 2009, 5:46 PM

I think it boils down to this: will there be any excellent writers who want to write about art? Critics who are also excellent writers are very rare. What is the appeal of art writing? There are maybe a few dozen writers in this country who actually get paid a living wage (or close to it) to write art criticism on a regular basis. The pay is low and usually freelancers are NOT offered health benefits. Newspapers are folding or cutting their staff all the time. Art critics are among the first to be let go. Why would one choose to become an art critic? Think of all the things that must come together for a talented art critic to exist and thrive: a writing style that is memorable and incisive, discernment and taste, the ability to judge things honestly without the influence of editors who care about the bottom line, financial independence and total freedom from a non-existent or pitiful wage system. I don't see this happening any time soon. Bloggers, who happen to have strong powers of discernment, judge things honestly and speak their minds, do not have to worry about earning a living, and are really talented writers, might pick up some of the slack, when the last print source for art criticism disappears. We will have regional art critics who blog. They will cover the scene that is available to them. If talented art critics, who figure out how to create a strong revenue stream with their blogs, manage to publish art criticism then that will be great. They will have to steer clear of certain forms of advertisements though because if their main source of revenue is selling ad space to museums and galleries they will become as compromised as the glossies and newspapers. Who else would want to advertise on an art blog?

5.

opie

April 25, 2009, 6:30 PM

I used to publish everything I wrote, but fashions change, and I made my living by painting (and now by teaching) anyway and I am perfectly happy to write on a blog for nothing but the pleasure of arguing.

Franklin, on the other hand, is a kind of type specimen of the problem here. He is clearly a superior writer and thinker; in fact,I don't know anyone better. Yet given that paid art writing is carried on at such a low level and is so wretchedly politicized excludes someone of his talents and abilities from the already very limited and rapidly shrinking art-writing marketplace. It also affects his chances for an academic job. I have a feeling that this unfortunate situation may have had some effect on his recent rethinking of the blog.

I more or less agree with EAG that blogging is the place where better critical writing will appear. The more pressing problem, and one that reflects very badly on our profession, is what to do about the embarrassing fact that someone who writes more clearly and intelligently and incisively than anyone else around is cursed by these very abilities not to be able to make a living at it?

6.

John

April 25, 2009, 7:08 PM

And, opie, what you said was taken far more seriously when you published it. That's the reality of the civilized world. The internet is eating at the money side of publication, but what it is replacing publication with is a sprawling, unfocused mess. Then again, art publications, I admit, qualify for the same description.

7.

Franklin

April 25, 2009, 9:17 PM

I don't remember where I read it and can't find it again, but someone has written that when the newspapers die, they'll die all at once, and suddenly a lot of revenue locked up in dead-tree advertising is going to get freed up. Until then, neither blogging nor publishing in print is going to be financially viable. Even afterwards, though, Web pages are not a great medium for delivering advertising. It's a hard problem.

That I have any advertising revenue whatsoever is a wonder, and I have a couple of ideas of how to draw more, none of which are terribly impressive. Fortunately, though, my living expenses are very low and we have two earners in the house. Between the possibilities on Artblog.net and a little more selling of art work, it almost seems like a functional situation if I squint at it just right. My idea of criticism as a hyphenated profession could play into this somehow - come for the writing, buy the art. Or the viewpoint and the opinions expressed, maybe even just the status as one of the longest-running art bloggers, could help sell the work. I'm reaching, I know.

I appreciate Opie's remarks about my writing and thinking. Thank you.

John, I'm pretty well convinced at this point that the only reason to write criticism is enjoyment of the genre. Your optimism is refreshing, though.

8.

opie

April 25, 2009, 10:34 PM

This is one of those "interesting times" the Chinese warned us about. Everything is in flux. The idea that the dead tree advertising will have to find somewhere else to roost is an interesting and reasonable one, for example, and all the more reason to have a strong blogging position in place to absorb whtever comes down the pike.

You may "own" what is said on your blog, but like it or not it is a niche and a position and could pay off, especially when this whole looney art structure collapses into the dust.

9.

ahab

April 25, 2009, 10:40 PM

The primary driver of visual culture (not just art, but design, illustration, and any man-made thing with a visual element) right now isn't a style, it's a tool—the computer.

I don't think I would argue this as it stands, but I wonder if it's point might not be filed a little finer. The computer is the fashionable tool of choice - though not always the best tool for the visual job at hand. Obviously. (My arguable example might be contemporary museum architecture; though what is ever not arguable?)

The only thing fashion ever begets is the next new black. All motivations for choosing a computer simmer over the low heat of economical efficacy. Societally, we value 'cheap'. The irony (sad truth, really) is that the cheap fashions we subscribe to immediately evaporate when we turn the heat up by calling bullshit, expecting better, or just cycle-testing them.

10.

John

April 25, 2009, 11:08 PM

Let's push this tree thing a little further. When the financial forest fire is over, the print publications that survive (and there will be some) will have much more room to continue, if not flourish. That's how forest fires work.

Things are changing. April Kingsley just visited the studio of a friend of mine and could not relate to anything he was doing, he says. She told him that what really interested her was modernistic abstraction, something he quit doing 25 years ago. Nothing is forever, including rejection. The best art proceeds by persisting.

11.

David Richardson

April 25, 2009, 11:45 PM

My intuition is that there will always be communities of interest that seek out good clear opinion and information about matters of consequence to them. When the community is that of art and artists, it may not be big as in mass market, but it is quite a bit larger now than what Dave Hickey called "300 highly medicated individuals", referring to the N.Y. art world of the early 60's. An experience last weekend encouraged this idea. I went down to see the SOFA N.Y. show and was speaking with a craft dealer I knew of but had never met. I introduced myself by saying "I'm David Richardson, you don't know me." He smiled and said "I do know you David, you wrote one of the best reviews of the ACC conference about 3 years ago." I was flattered, but more than that amazed to find I had penetrated into a community that was avidly looking for news and information about the things it cares deeply about.

12.

David Richardson

April 26, 2009, 12:02 AM

And Franklin, your comment about the computer being the primary driver of visual culture is plausible, but I'm old enough (and perhaps foolish enough)to believe that this is not the end of the story. What I mean is, I believe that real art, phenomenological, actual standing-there-in-front-of-you art will persist. It undoubtedly will take forms we might not recognize, but I predict that it will persist as a basic part of the human experience. I recall a favorite phrase I heard in the 80's: "a successful fashion photograph makes a promise it can never keep." I think technology makes a promise it can never keep, which is that this or that innovation (including the computer) will fulfill all our needs.

13.

Franklin

April 26, 2009, 6:35 AM

My point about the computer was related to the one about art styles not catching on in a big way after Pop. Picasso was commissioned to design for the theater, and Gertrude Stein even wrote a (very bad) Cubist novel. Art Nouveau changed the look of typography and design forever, as did the Bauhaus. I saw kimonos at the MFA that had been influenced by Postwar abstraction. The influence of Pop just went everywhere. Nowadays, the real determinant of what man-made things look like isn't a style, but the possibilities offered by software. This is partly because the software is awesome, and partly because no style since Pop has captured civilized imagination with the same intensity.

I don't mean to imply that the computer represents some kind of desirable pinnacle of artistic achievement, in the way that the styles might have. It's just a particularly nifty tool. It's neutral in the sense that a shovel is neutral, and could result in a garden or a crushed skull depending on whether you give it to a gardener or a chimpanzee. But it also shapes your thinking like any tool, and it has tendencies to go in certain directions. This is just as true of pastels, and is itself a neutral property. The only difference between pastels and the computer (and we discussed this a little at the FATE conference at the beginning of the month) is that you can control the pastels on a fundamental mechanical level right off the bat, and the same is not true of the computer. A funny thing happens with the computer - the closer you get to the basics, the scarier things get. Practically no one using Photoshop can tell you what language it's written in. (It's C++.) Assembly language is considered dark geekery even by programmers, and no one deals with binary except the specialists among the specialists. It's like I was saying about the majority of bloggers in that Cowling interview - a lot of their decisions are being made for them by the machine, and they have no choice except to abide by those decisions, because they don't really control the medium.

John, regarding the Kingsley story, I thought something similar when Walter Darby Bannard had his show at Jacobson Howard a couple of years ago - the way to beat art history is to outlive it.

David, your point about the communities of interest is an important one. I think a useful strategy would be to nurture the community to the degree that it can sustain itself, which means that there are enough people making good work on the supply end and enough people paying for it on the demand end. The writers supply a feedback mechanism inside that ecology.

14.

opie

April 26, 2009, 9:35 AM

As an artist, one who is almost masochistically obsessed with making my art better while having no idea whether I am making good art or garbage, I really can't get too excited about the differences between mediums or the effect art styles have on public styles.

I don't want to know anything about Photoshop language. I don't even want to know most of the Photoshop tools. I also don't want to know how pastels are made. All I care about is what, if anything, they can do for my art.

Now, my teenage son reads fat books about C++, for pleasure, no less. I think that's wonderful. He cares about those things because that's his obsession, that's what he does with his time. He has no interest whatsoever how I make my paintings.

I'm not saying you should or should not be obsessed by anything in particular, just that when you are really into something all you care about is what feeds into your interest. The rest is peripheral.

15.

Tim

April 26, 2009, 10:32 AM

Franklin, it seems to me that the computer as a nifty tool is good for things other than artistry (for instance, some forms of communication, though after reading in a book, I'm not nearly as worn out as after plowing through lengthy material on a computer screen.); I've not seen anything come from an artist's employment of the computer which could be an experiencial rival to, for example, even mediochre painting.

A feature of the best art is its craft, the experience of direct insinuation of a singular human sensibility in the shaping of material. The value of that will never disappear, though it is now in eclipse by the jillion asides thrown up from the churn of technological "advance."

Art history re-enforces the notion that, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, everything more or less keeps coming around. It tells me to be patient (not my long suit)while the world thrashes about in coming once again to understand What Is Missing.

It seems that what keeps the interest with technology as an end alive is it's circular diversion masquerading as seemingly endless possiblilties, inticing us 24/7 to sidestep actual life, which so many now see as a necessary but unfortunate intrusion. Also, it is so much easier to be a slave to something like technology than it is to take on the challenge of liberation from it.

"Nowadays, the real determinant of what man-made things look like isn't a style, but the possibilities offered by software." Franklin, "real"? Could a better word be "current", thus, passing? People will figure this out.
Or will computer logic finally trump human sensibility?

I'm not making some kind of Luddite argument here; I'm just observing that things now are way out of perspective.

I think David has things in pretty good perspective, though all of the comments on this thread are interesting.

And, Franklin, thanks for continuing to proceed with this blog in your thoughtful way. By the way, I think of pastels the same way you seem to think of computers: I don't see how to control any medium. The result inevitably looks as though I was trying to control it. Isn't the artist's role more like a referee of materials rather than a controller of them? Maybe I don't know how you're using 'control,' and we're actually saying the same thing.

16.

Franklin

April 26, 2009, 11:02 AM

But I happen to know, Opie, that you can make acrylics from fairly basic components if not from scratch, and John is making his own acrylic resin paints. I agree, you need only the expertise you need to make your art better. My point is that it's easier to get at the basics of the physical materials than the digital ones; beyond that, tools is tools.

And really, the extent to which a style influences an outside medium is neither here or nor there. I certainly wouldn't call that, in itself, artistic success. But it's one way of contrasting the achievements of art styles postdating Pop and the ones up to and including it. That matters for art criticism because its fortunes are tied to the success of the art of its time. If the best art retreats to the margins, the best criticism is going to retreat to the margins. If the art world becomes concerned with arcane, essentially academic issues, the criticism will go there as well (and thanks to its link to academia, it will be only too happy to take it there).

Tim, control is just getting the results you want out of something, as opposed to what the tool wants to do by itself given uninformed inputs. Sometimes the handling required is loose, sometimes tight. Although the digital media are in some ways fundamentally different than physical media, on some level it's all technology.

17.

opie

April 26, 2009, 11:35 AM

Oh sure. i wasn't disagreeing with you, only yakking. We haven't been able to vent for weeks, you know.

18.

John

April 26, 2009, 12:17 PM

The reason I make my own paint is the art supply folks don't offer anything that will work the way I want it to work. But I don't rule out commercial paint. Likewise, the computer has a future in making art. I'll delve into some specifics.

There was a time long ago when AppleWorks, an assembly language program for the Apple II, didn't work the way I wanted. So I learned 6502 assembly language and disassembled it byte by byte. That enabled me to write, in assembly language, new routines that "patched" the program to make it work better. I developed, in BASIC, another program that delivered and removed the various patches. I made quite a bit of money with that program.

I also wrote a pure assembly language program that prevented students in school labs from tampering with the control panels in the Apple IIgs. It was fast, took less than a second to do its work and lab managers loved it.

The problem with writing code in any higher level language, such as C++, is that all the bugs contained in the compilers are added to your own bugs, to the point where some of them can be buried beyond humanity's ability to find them. As the computer revolution progresses, I believe it has become more and more infested with bugs that will never be found, because there are so many layers of code built upon previous code built upon yet more previous code, and so on. It is like a house built on a foundation that used salt water to mix the concrete.

And assembly itself is one step removed from the native tongue of the CPU, which is called machine language. Thus even assembly programmers are dependent upon compilers to translate their thinking into machine language. It is true, though, that anyone fanatic enough to learn assembly will also understand machine language, and be able, with a lot of patience, to ferret out such mistakes if they take place.

The problem with assembly, which took me by surprise because I had not thought it through in my enthusiasm to learn, is that it only works on one type of processor. 6502 assembly would work on the 65c02 (though it did not take advantage of all the second processor's capabilities), but it would not work at all on the 68000 (used by the Mac at the time).

Joan Truckenbrod, one of the earliest to use the computer for art, knew and used assembly on a broad scale. Yet, she was unable to escape the limits of the hardware of that time, and so she would say things like "accepting pixelation is part of being honest with your use of the medium." While that was certainly true, it did not fix the awful look that many of the early results presented.

Computers are a lot more competent nowadays, to the point of seeming downright muscular. The most successful application I have found for them is in manipulating images I make with black and white film. By scanning the negatives with a powerful scanner (Nikon 9000, slightly less able than the legendary Imacon) I get huge screen images (10' x 10') that will print smoothly at much larger sizes than I could print from the original film on photosensitive paper. With a grid of 2880x1440 zones per square inch, the printers place each little blob of ink randomly in each tiny zone, so there are no visible pixels, even when viewed with an 8x loop.

More importantly, Photoshop lets me correct outright mistakes in exposure and development, add and subtract "content", and in many other ways improve the original image. It is an almost unbelievable extension of the "dodge and burn" darkroom techniques that we had to use to make minor changes in pre-computer days. It does all this without altering the look of film ... thus retaining "honesty to the medium" if by "medium" you mean film, not computer.

While Photoshop is great for performing major cosmetic surgery on my images, it is still inadequate for printing the final result, so it is necessary to use separate Raster Image Processor software to get a good print. I use Quad Tone RIP because it lets me devise my own printer/paper instructions that fine tune which inks the printer will use and how it applies them to each exposure level in the image. Technical stuff with a densitometer and a simple calculator that isn't that hard to do, compared to writing assembly language.

Where the digital world still falls short, from my experience, is images made with digital cameras. They no longer pixelate, but their result is usually quite cold, compared to what I can get with silver based film. There have been attempts to write software that adds the "film look" to digitally originated images, but they are not convincing. Maybe someday ...

So I do not exclude the computer as a possibility anymore than I exclude manufactured acrylic from working the way I need it to work ... someday.

19.

Franklin

April 26, 2009, 12:49 PM

I just want to say for the record that I have considerable programming chops for someone with a painting background, but they don't hold a candle to John's. Holy cow.

20.

John

April 26, 2009, 3:01 PM

Thanks Franklin. I have forgotten most of it, though. I do remember when I was chair, say 1985, that a faculty member (and a good friend) was contending to the dean that it was safe to operate an outdoor laser indoors because it was controlled by a computer that some students had programmed in assembly. (Certain reflections off the wall from the thing were capable of blinding humans.)

So I brought in one of my assembly programs on an almost endless series of "sausage" folded dot matrix pages, one side with assembly, the other with the compiled machine language, which of course was all hexadecimal. The assembly itself looked like someone speaking in tongues.

I challenged him, in a meeting with the dean, to find mistakes in the machine language. I said I didn't think I could find them, if in fact there were any, and I was the author of the program. I contended the laser being controlled by a computer made it more, not less dangerous.

That was a small program. I sometimes cringe when I think of how many kazillions of hexadecimals we are using to run our world today, hex that no single person could ever hope to comprehend. Indeed, I doubt there is any team of experts that can comprehend, much less fix, the damn thing.

21.

ahab

April 26, 2009, 7:21 PM

Following #7 and #10:

The gnashinations of dead-tree publications are mammoth. Despite their looming anachronicities why wouldn't drowning print-ad publishers be just as eligible for billion dollar multi-tiered bailouts as that other more sharp-toothed behemoth, the auto industry? They're probably just watching for the most successful bargaining strategy before declaring mass-layoffs and bankruptcy.

But what do I know about all that? Only what gets through when I skim the weekend paper for the crossword.

22.

Tim

April 26, 2009, 8:37 PM

Didn't the NY Times just get 34 Million from the Federal Gubment? It's over a billion in the red, so I hear.

23.

opie

April 26, 2009, 9:45 PM

No, the New York Times Co. got a $250 million loan from the world's second-richest man -- Mexican Carlos Slim Helu.

It is priced to reflect the risk: 14 percent.

24.

ahab

April 26, 2009, 10:01 PM

There may well be a style, a fashion, an attitude driving visual culture - yes, primarily using the computer - and I think it smells like DESIGN.

From a linked quote on the Adbusters site ["I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic."] I clicked and read a 1994 Guardian interview of novelist JGBallard. He doesn't say anything about art that we don't know already, and he only uses 'aesthetic' cheaply, but I thought snippets to be of value:

"I don't think it's possible to touch people's imagination today by aesthetic means.... I assume it is because our environment today, by and large a media landscape, is oversaturated by aestheticising elements (TV ads, packaging, design and presentation, styling and so on) but impoverished and numbed as far as its psychological depth is concerned."

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